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Seizures and Epilepsy in dogs

Witnessing your dog having a seizure can be a scary and upsetting experience. It will leave you with many questions, especially about supporting your dog and  how to avoid it happening again 

Whether you have clicked on this article because your dog has had a one-off seizure or has been diagnosed with epilepsy, we hope this article can offer some insight into what seizures and canine epilepsy are and how you can assist and nourish your dog as naturally as possible. 

In this article, we will cover:

  • What is a seizure?
  • Types of seizures in dogs and the symptoms 
  • What to do if your dog has a seizure
  • Causes of seizures in dogs
  • Diagnosis
  • A seizure is not always epilepsy

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden and abnormal change of electrical function in the brain. This sudden surge of electrical energy can cause various physical and psychological manifestations, such as stiffness, convulsions, loss of control, repetitive movements, altered sensations and loss of consciousness. It is important to know that a seizure does not always mean that your dog has epilepsy.

Types of Seizures in Dogs & Symptoms

There are different types of seizures in dogs; these are:

Grand Mal 

This is the most common type of seizure, where both sides of the brain are affected. There are two phases. The tonic phase is where your dog may fall to the ground, become unconscious, and the body becomes rigid. This phase usually lasts 10 -30 seconds, and your dog may stop breathing. It is important to note although extremely distressing to witness, your dog will not be experiencing any pain and will be completely unaware of what is happening during a seizure. 

The Clonic phase comes after this, and your dog may start chomping their jaws, whining, and barking, and their pupils may dilate.

They will usually experience uncontrolled movements or convulsions. During the clonic phase, your dog may become incontinent and have no control of his autonomic systems. 

Petit Mal

As with the grand mal seizure, both sides of the brain are affected. 

Your dog may show the following symptoms;

  • Become absent
  • They may lose awareness
  • Stare into space 
  • Twitch
  • Shake or tilt their head, 
  • Fall to the ground and become very unsteady. 
  • They may drool and arch their back. 

This type of seizure will not last as long as a grand mal seizure.

Focal seizures

These types of seizures are localised to specific areas of the brain and have limited effects on the body, depending on which area of the brain is affected. Usually, dogs remain conscious during a focal seizure, which can vary in severity, making them hard to detect as some dogs may not exhibit many symptoms. 

Symptoms can include;

  • Staring into space
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Signs of their hearing or vision changes
  • Fly biting (where they snap at the air out of the blue, as if they are snapping at flies) 
  • Unusual head or eye movements
  • Muscle contractions on one side of the body or in one limb

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The three stages of seizures in dogs 

There are three components of a seizure:

  • Pre-ictal phase: Your dog will start to exhibit unusual behaviours such as staring into space, hiding, whining, barking, shaking, and salivating; they may become very nervous and restless.  If your dog has regular seizures, these pre-ictal warning signs can help you recognise when your dog is about to have a seizure, so allow you to gently get them somewhere safe and comfortable (if possible). Each dog is different, so there are no definitive symptoms for each dog.  
  • Ictal Phase: This is the actual seizure and lasts up to about two minutes. As described above, the muscles will contract, the body will become stiff and convulse, and your dog will fall to the ground and become unconscious. They may defecate and/or urinate and become very vocal. 
  • Post-ictal phase: Your dog will be confused and possibly temporarily blind; they may be disorientated, restless, drooling, pacing, and they may vomit.

seizures in dogs

What to do when your dog is having a seizure 

Witnessing your dog having a seizure is both upsetting and scary, but there are a few important things to consider and some tips on what to do and what not to do during the ictal and post-ictal phases of a seizure. 

Keep calm 

This is easier said than done when watching your dog have a seizure, but one important thing to remember is that at that moment, no matter how bad it looks or how much noise they may be making, your dog is not in any pain and has no awareness of what is happening. The brain is shut down. 

Take a deep breath, talk to them calmly and softly, and ensure the surroundings are safe. 

Grab your phone and hit record on the video 

If possible, record the seizure; not only is the valuable information for your vet, but it will also date stamp and, most importantly, show you how long the seizure is going on. It will seem like a lifetime, but most seizures only last up to ninety seconds. 

If someone else in the house is panicking and distressed at witnessing the seizure, getting them to record it could be a good “distraction” for them.

Note – if the seizure passes the two-minute mark, you will want to get on the phone with your vet immediately; they can offer some extra advice and be ready for you to bring the dog into them after they have come around.

Dim lights and sounds

If you are indoors when the seizure occurs, try and cut out as much stimulation as possible, dim lights, draw the curtains/pull down blinds and turn off the TV or radio. Your dog needs peace and calm. If someone in the house is distressed, making a lot of noise or movements, kindly ask them to remove themselves from the room. 

Never use restraint

It can be tempting to think that while your dog is stiff, shaking uncontrollably, legs paddling, etc., it would be a good idea to lay on them, hold them still, cuddle or restrain them somehow. 


Ensure they are safe in the environment; some cushions around them if they are on a hard surface, and if outdoors, cover them gently with your jacket or the like, blocking out the light, but never restrain them in any way. Talk quietly and reassuringly to them, but let their bodies do whatever they are doing at that moment. 

If a seizure happens outside, it is vital to ensure that you gently put their lead on them, as when they come around, they may want to run.

Keep your hands away from their mouth

The most dangerous thing you can do when your dog is in the throes of a seizure is go near or place your fingers in their mouth. With the stiffness and uncontrolled movements, especially around the head and jaw, your dog could bite down with extreme force, and your fingers could be taken off, especially with some larger breeds. 

If you feel that your dog’s tongue is going to the back of their throat, the most you can do is very gently lift their body to tilt their head forward, again using as little restraint as possible. 

Help in the post-ictal phase

Once your dog has returned from the seizure, they can inhibit some unusual, innate behaviours. You have to remember that it is as if the brain has been reset. They will be confused and disorientated; they may be fearful, try to run, hide, pace, and they may not even recognise you. Some dogs may come straight to you for reassurance. It is all very individual. You must allow your dog to do what they need to, keep them safe at all times, but give them space. They will be extremely exhausted after a seizure, too, as so much energy is used during a seizure. Let them rest. 

Now you must contact your vet.

Keeping a diary of your dog’s seizures may be helpful to build a picture of any patterns that may be causing it. Some dogs experience seizures from strong smells, flashing or bright lights, and even the full moon can affect dogs having seizures.


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Causes of seizures in dogs

There can be a number of reasons why your dog is experiencing seizures

  • Toxins 
  • Hypothyroidism 
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Metabolic issues – Kidney or liver disease 
  • Lymes disease
  • Toxicara
  • Genetics
  • Vaccines
  • Pesticides/herbicides such as Glyphosate 
  • Flea/tick/worm preventatives – even the use of these on other pets in the household
  • Pharmaceutical medications
  • Electrolyte issues
  • Head injury
  • Brain tumours

Chronic skin issues and seizures 

Does your dog have a chronic skin issue such as atopy, or they are constantly itchy? 

Interestingly, this could be another cause of seizures. 

A study in 2020 at the University of Vienna found a higher prevalence of seizure activity in a small population of atopic dogs.

But what does the skin have to do with brain activity?  The skin-brain axis is a highly complex issue, and there are many reasons why chronic skin issues may cause seizures, but inflammation will play a huge role.

The skin, being the body’s largest organ, is a vital barrier to disease, bacteria, viruses, etc., so when the skin barrier is compromised ie, there is a chronic skin issue such as yeast or atopic dermatitis, there will be a high pro-inflammatory response involving cytokines, mast cells and Th1-type response that can result in neurological inflammatory processes, causing excitability in the brain, which can lead to seizures.  

So, it is vital to get to the heart of those chronic skin issues that your dog may be suffering. 

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Any time your dog has a seizure, you must contact your vet, even if they appear fine afterwards. If your dog has just started to have seizures, your vet will want to run some tests to determine if there are specific causes of the seizure.

Your vet will examine your dog, they may want to run some blood tests, and if they feel that there could be something more serious going on, they may even suggest referring them for an MRI brain scan. 

A seizure is not always epilepsy

It is important to note that just because your dog has had a seizure does not mean they have epilepsy.  As mentioned above, after any seizure, it is important to see your veterinary surgeon so that they can carry out some tests on your dog.

If these tests all come back negative, and your dog is otherwise healthy,  your vet will not be concerned about one seizure. 

If, however, your dog continues to have seizures, this will need further veterinary intervention. 

If these tests are inconclusive and your dog continues to have seizures, this will be classed as idiopathic (no known cause) epilepsy, and your vet may suggest some medication to help alleviate the seizures if they are frequent and affecting your dog’s everyday life.  

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), such as Phenobarbital, work by stabilising the brain’s electrical activity, which lessens the chances of a seizure happening.

Working alongside your vet is vital, and for many dogs, AEDs are needed, especially if the seizures are regular so that they can function normally and happily. 

These types of drugs require careful monitoring by your vet; the correct dosage can be hard to manage, and too much can become toxic. Working with your vet and a homoeopathic/holistic vet to support organs like the liver if your dog does have to take these drugs would be a great approach. 

As always, here at Dogs First, we also want to give you some tips and natural remedies to help your dog with their seizures.  

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